After years of stumbling leadership, Pacifica radio has new people in key positions: LaVarn Williams, formerly a local board member here at KPFA, is now the interim chief financial officer (CFO); Ricardo de Anda is the interim general counsel; and Grace Aaron, now the interim executive director (ED), oversees the five-station network.
The largely new national board (PNB) made these long overdue changes in January. The departed persons—which included attorney Dan Siegel, a former interior executive director—were members of the Pacifica status quo, which is responsible for the network’s grave financial crisis. During the decade since 1999, Pacifica remained in the hands of several mutually back-scratching groups—who pushed their own agendas to the point where the survival of the five-station Pacifica network is now in question. When any member station of the network is in trouble, it draws resources from others in the network.
The former Pacifica board chair and ex officio interim ED, Sherry Gendelman, has been another key member of the status quo; Gendelman remains on the board, but no longer as chair. Grace Aaron was chosen as the new chair, and since Pacifica still didn’t have a permanent executive, this chair also assumed that position.
Prior to assuming the helm of Pacifica, Aaron sat on KPFK’s local station board (LSB) in Los Angeles. She is a long-time peace activist and produced a cable TV program covering issues such as campus military recruitment, nuclear weapons, global warming, Israel/Palestine and Haiti.
While we in Northern California learned what we could about the new executive, the long-building crisis at WBAI, Pacifica’s New York station, whose financial insolvency was threatening the entire network, came crashing into prominence. WBAI was behind in both station and tower rent. For years, the New York station was grossly mismanaged by the Justice & Unity faction, a local group composed of key staff, management, and a majority of the LSB. They were part of the back-scratching alliance in Pacifica. When the landlord gave a 3-day notice, Grace Aaron and LaVarn Williams discovered it. They assembled a team, flew to New York, and took immediate action.
WBAI’s newly elected LSB, which was instrumental in installing Aaron as executive, supported her actions. Across the five-station network, many of us who followed these events were favorably impressed. But not everyone was pleased. Angriest of all was Justice & Unity, the New York group running WBAI into the ground. Improperly using the air waves for their own purposes, they denounced Grace Aaron on the air, calling her a “racist” and a “CIA agent,” and broadcast a call for a mass demonstration to oppose this “intrusion” by the national office. To those of us far from the fray, their words conjured up the specter of hundreds, maybe thousands, rallying to the J&U faction. Thirty people showed up for their rally.
Had Justice & Unity won that round, rallying thousands to their cause, and taking the station, their triumph would have been brief. WBAI, and possibly the entire Pacifica network, could have been forced into bankruptcy, the assets taken over by some other entity. WBAI’s assets are estimated at $40 million. Where there’s a carcass there’s a vulture—often a large flock.
What the status quo people, here in California as well as in New York, thought of this peril is anybody’s guess. Instead of supporting Grace Aaron in her actions to save the network, they have been fighting her and LaVarn Williams every step of the way.
LaVarn Williams, the new interim CFO, is known as a financial expert and courageous defender of responsible Pacifica management. While a member of the local board at KPFA, Williams fought for transparency, and during a mandated but much resisted review of financial records she recovered $65,000 worth of computers, missing from Pacifica, among other financial irregularities. That was in 2005; the computers were returned and the matter was dropped. Now Gendelman and Co. are calling Williams “unqualified” for the position of CFO, despite her having a masters degree in finance and 20 years experience as a corporate financial manager with Xerox and Applied Materials. But Gendelman’s people did not object to the incompetence of their staunch allies.
Near the end of April the PNB held a meeting in Berkeley, where local activists finally got to see and later talk with the much-discussed Grace Aaron and the new board members who were backing her. When I arrived at the meeting hall on the first evening of the event, they were in the middle of public comment, and several angry Justice & Unity people who had flown out from New York had the floor. “You have a lot to answer for!” they were saying, waving their fingers at Grace Aaron. Then KPFA listeners had a turn at the mike, “It’s about time somebody did something,” was one representative comment. “Thank you for taking action after all these years!”
There was a report on WBAI, given by Aaron, Williams, and Tony Bates, three of the five-member team. Since three of these are non-white and one is of Arab descent, it’s ironic that they were accused of being a “white takeover” of WBAI. The report (online at KPFTX Archives of April 24, part 4) found the station in disarray: many phones didn’t work; there was no volunteer coordinator and often no one to answer phones during fundraising; premiums were not sent for years, etc.
Most of the audience, KPFA activists from here in the Bay Area, applauded the team for their work in saving WBAI, and so did the majority of this board. But former chair Sherry Gendelman and four others sat in subdued silence—“the sad-looking five,” a person from KPFT in Houston observed. The Justice & Unity group from WBAI receded into the background. I could almost feel sympathy for them, if only they hadn’t done so much damage over the years.
A major item that came out of this three-day conference was a motion on LSB election policy which has measures to ensure a more level playing field for the candidates in the upcoming election for new station-board members, as well as on-air announcements to inform listeners about the election process. The aim is to make Pacifica’s listener democracy work. Corrupt practices in recent elections, notably at KPFA and WBAI, have illustrated the need for these measures. Gendelman and her faction at KPFA, the so-called “Concerned Listeners,” are already announcing their defiance of the motion.
Following the event, Aaron remained in the Bay Area for several days, meeting and talking with many KPFA listeners, expressing her vision for Pacifica and hearing what the listeners had to say.
Mara Rivera, Steve Gilmartin and Virginia Browning contributed to this commentary. They, and Daniel Borgström, are KPFA listener and activists.